This past weekend I visited City Church in San Francisco to have a public conversation with my friend Julie Rodgers about moral disagreement over same-sex marriage in the church. The goal of the conversation was to explore our differences—Julie is “Side A,” which means she believes God blesses same-sex marriages, and I’m “Side B,” believing that marriage is “male and female”—and to talk about what it might look like to find friendship and some kind of common cause in the midst of disagreement.
I won’t go into all of what happened at the event—the audio recording should be posted soon at the church’s website, and you can listen for yourself—but I did want to reflect a bit here on a couple of the points of divergence between Julie and me, in the hope of continuing the conversation…
At one point during our dialogue, Julie talked about how sympathetic she was to so many of our emphases here on this blog. When we challenge various contemporary fixations on the nuclear family (to the neglect of celibacy and other forms of community), when we confront our own “conservative” self-righteousness, when we celebrate a more robust view of friendship than what you often find in contemporary churches, when we dream about seeing single people being folded into families, and when we celebrate the hospitality that singles both give and receive in their churches, Julie said she wants to cheer us on. But, she asked, why should that vision be tied so closely to a particular understanding of marriage as “male and female” that excludes lesbian and gay people? Why, in other words, do we think there’s a necessary link between a “traditionalist” view of marriage and the “radical” view of friendship we’re trying to promote? Couldn’t the latter actually be just as compatible—or maybe even more compatible—with a “Side A” view of gay relationships?
One of the things I wish I’d said publicly in response is that, truthfully, there is a lot common ground between “Side A” and “Side B” Christians when it comes to radical hospitality and community. Not only have I learned a great deal from “Side A” writers such as David Matzko McCarthy, Eugene Rogers, and Andrew Sullivan about friendship, but I’ve also been the beneficiary of remarkable gifts of friendship and hospitality from my “Side A” friends. To a certain extent, Julie is right: Much of what we talk about here can be appropriated by people with widely differing theological views.
And yet I think there’s another sense in which the answer to Julie’s question goes something like this:
There is a whole Christian architecture or fabric of relationships in which each kind of relationship finds its place and is not the same thing as the other. Marriage is not celibacy, and to try (as some of the Corinthian Christians apparently did [1 Cor. 7:5]) to live as if it were is to go wrong. (“The key,” Oliver O’Donovan once wrote, “to Paul’s famous discussion in 1 Corinthians 7 is his rejection of the concept of an ascetic marriage, a kind of half-way house between marriage and singleness.”) Likewise, friendship is not marriage, and to try to live as if it were—to confuse it in some way with marriage—is to distort or miss out on the unique gift friendship is, not to mention court disappointment.
In other words, in a traditional Christian view of things, respecting the integrity of specific vocations—like marriage or friendship—is part and parcel of living out those vocations with faithfulness. Chastity in singleness reinforces the dignity of marriage. By refusing sex outside of the marriage covenant, celibacy implicitly honors the sanctity of marriage (Hebrews 13:4), as well as encouraging married Christians to pursue their own form of chastity. And marriages, in turn, can support and buttress the celibate vocation. The point is that all of these forms of faithfulness turn out to be deeply implicated in one another, and to change one—to alter one’s definition of marriage, for example—will have knock-on effects for the others. On the flip side, to try to encourage and defend one—to promote a rich, “thick” practice of committed friendship—is, we hope, to strengthen and undergird all the others.
In short, we don’t see our work here at SF as being only about promoting a certain set of habits and practices around “friendship.” We’re also interested in the whole interlocking architecture of Christian relationships—marriage, parenting, and other relationships, alongside “spiritual friendship.” We’re interested in celebrating friendship because we believe it will strengthen the practice—or, better, the practices (plural)—of traditional Christian faith in all the various ways Christians are called to live it out.
Tomorrow I’ll follow up this thought by talking about one more question that came out of my time at City Church.